Gosford Park
directed by Robert Altman
(USA, 2001)

Something smells fishy at the mansion on the hill. It could be the dead body of Gosford Park's master, Sir William McCordle. More likely, it's all the red herrings in the plot conceived by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban, a plot that really treats Sir William's murder as an afterthought.

Done in the grand Altman tradition of ensemble casting, Gosford Park was a winner at virtually every awards competition, and in virtually every category, from best picture to acting to editing.

Set at an upper-crust mansion in 1932 English countryside, Gosford Park is, on the surface, about a shooting party weekend that ends in the host's death. And sure, it's a whodunit in the style of Clue: We know the weapons, and we know where. The "who" isn't apparent at first.

But, beyond that, the story of Gosford Park is the story of parallel universes: an upper crust above stairs, the servants below. It's a study of how those worlds collide with universally ignored frequency, how the servants' identities are melded with those of the masters and mistresses, an examination of money and status (and they're not the same thing) between the wars.

The advertising tagline for Gosford Park was "Tea at Four. Dinner at Eight. Murder at Midnight." It comes up woefully short.

As the film opens, guests are arriving at the country house for their weekend of blasting away at pheasants. A relative of Sir William, Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith) brings along her new lady's maid, Mary. Mary (Kelly Macdonald) is there to unpack the countess' clothes, store her jewelry, dress her, fetch her breakfast and prepare her for the dinners and luncheons.

Every one of the visitors has one of these handy servants -- valets, for the men -- except one unlucky woman whose lack of a lady's maid or a wardrobe of evening gowns is cause of much clucking from the other guests.

Downstairs, Gosford Park's own substantial staff is making room and adapting its own pecking order for this influx of valets, maids, drivers and assorted hangers-on who will invade their own space, much as the guests upstairs are invading the drawing rooms and libraries of Sir William.

It's the kind of house in which a hundred people could work to support its upkeep -- the food, the linens, the cleaning, the sheer logistics of it all. It's the kind of house that can sustain dozens of visitors without bursting at the seams.

And it's the kind of world in which a servant is always present -- but ignored. In which an actor's success is a sign of cheapening values, in which money that's earned, not inherited, is worth less.

Of course, the morality that is espoused so freely is riddled with holes; everyone is fooling around, but no one fools around with their own spouse. And the perfect servant, says head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), has no life of her own.

Oh, but the servants do have lives of their own, vividly lived in the shadows. And the lives of the servants, universally ignored, are at the crux of Gosford Park, its secrets and its murder mystery.

Plow through the accents, have patience in sorting out who's related to whom, and enjoy a great piece of work by Robert Altman and a cast of wondrous skill.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 9 November 2002

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